Last week after learning of the suicide a week before of Nicholas Hughes, son of the poets Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, I immediately snagged a copy of Plath’s poem “Nick and the Candlestick” & posted it here. Then, a few minutes later, I deleted the post.
I deleted it because I found myself bothered to be thinking about him merely as the infant celebrated in the poem, or as an adjunct to his mother’s famous life & death. He had his own life, after all, didn’t he? Damn betcha. And something told me that his family, friends, colleagues, & partner saw him as something far more than one the headlines over the past week have painted him as — the putative victim of his mother’s “suicide gene.” His death was a tragedy, yes: but a tragedy because it was a loss of him & for all who knew him. And for many of those, like me, who didn’t.
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Sylvia Plath has been an important figure in my life for many years. As a poet, yeah, & also because when I was younger I had my own little romance with suicidal impulses. I still wrestle too damn often with bouts of the endless bleak grey or, worse, the pit. One of the marks of my growing maturity was, I think, when I finally came to understand that Plath herself was more than her own suicide — that even the three deaths marked out in “Lady Lazarus” — you know the ones —
Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
— were none of them the death she died. Nor did she intend suicide when she wrote that poem in October 1962 — four months before her death. As I discovered & wrote in a piece I did in 1995 for a course I took towards my MFA degree at University of Alaska Anchorage, “Plath was not ready to give up and die at this point; on the contrary, she was intent upon continuing her life and her career as a poet.” Later in the piece I wrote:
We can only speculate on what her life and work would have been like today had she survived. But less and less do I believe her suicide in February 1963 was the inevitable result of a life-long death wish. No, I think now that she died because she was prevented from consolidating the gains she had made in October. In October she wrote “the best poems of [her] life,” the poems that, exactly as she predicted, would “make [her] name,” and in which she began to free herself of the dominating influences of her husband, her father, and her own illusions. In October she began to shape new meanings for herself out of her life’s central events. But that winter, her spirit sapped by miserable physical and emotional circumstances, the inner regeneration she began in October came to a halt and then reversed itself.
— “Sylvia Plath’s Resurrections” (1995)
Plath biographers mostly recognize that. But you sure wouldn’t know it from most of the newspapers stories since Nick Hughes’ death. Back to the doomed poet, back to the nonsense about the “artistic temperament” making poets more prone to suicide (how many poets haven’t killed themselves; how many people who aren’t poets or any kind of artist have killed themselves? did you know that Alaska had 419 deaths by suicide in 2003–2005 — one of the highest rates in the country — & most of the victims were not poets or artists?), back to a whole lotta other nonsense that attempts to encapsulate the complexity of life & death into neat little catchphrases & sound bites & fatalism thinly & fakily disguised as “psychology.” All that’s added here is to stick in an asterisk with a footnote to Nicholas Hughes’ name as victim either of Plath herself, or of whatever led her to her own tragic death.
What a load of bollocks. As crap-infested as the blame that dogged Ted Hughes for most of his post-Plath life. (Pardon me, but many people survive turbulent relationships without killing themselves. I do not blame him. And as a father — he was remarkable.)
So what caused her to take her own life? What caused her son to? In the final analysis: nobody knows. But as someone myself prone to suicidal ideation in my bleakest moments, I think Nick Hughes’ friend Joe Saxton has it exactly right:
Taking your own life isn’t rational except in the tiny narrow logic of one person’s brain…. His life had a thousand things to look forward to, yet the chemicals in his brain and his fear of another relapse just let him fall through the crack in one short moment. In a day, or a week, or a month, he might have felt entirely different.
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It must’ve been around the time that I took my MFA in Creative Writing at UAA (December 1997) that I learned Nicholas Hughes had become a fisheries biologist at UAA’s sister institution University of Alaska Fairbanks. I thought that was pretty cool: he was making a name & life on his own terms. As people do. Shortly thereafter, his father came out with The Birthday Letters — the first time Ted Hughes revealed very much at all about his own life & feelings about Plath in the aftermath of her suicide. The next time I thought about the Plath/Hughes family was October 1998, as I walked down a street in Vancouver, BC with a friend & saw Ted Hughes’ death shouted out in bold headlines in the Canadian newspapers. I thought to myself, That’s why he came out with The Birthday Letters when he did — he knew he was dying.
It was my intent ever after to learn more about Ted Hughes’ life & poetry, feeling as I did that he’d been unfairly demonized by many of Plath’s admirers. (I can’t say how disgusted I am by Robin Morgan’s poem about him, or some of the other yucky behavior coming from the Plath-worship quarter. I admire Plath too, but please!) I never quite got around to learning about him then thanks to my own life events.
I didn’t stop to think how Ted Hughes’ death might affect his children. Joe Saxton says it was his father’s death that led to Nick Hughes’ battles with depression:
Until the death of his beloved father in 1998, Nick was a man in whom a zest for life and a thirst for learning welled over. Whether it was investigating Nile perch in Kenya for his undergraduate dissertation, working out how to make the perfect glaze for his pottery, discovering the ecology of grayling or trout, or “calibrating” (his term, not mine) how to only just lose at football in the garden against his godchild, my youngest son, his lust for learning was undimmed.
Nick’s father was his soulmate. He and Ted had a relationship of shared passion, shared pleasures and a deep love of fish. At the end of O-levels they went off to fish in Alaska together. Nick and I retraced some of their steps two years later. Alaska is beautiful in its own right but all Nick wanted to do, it was clear, was to relive their trip in the most excruciating detail. “Hey Sag,” he’d say, genuinely expecting me to light up with interest. “This is the branch where dad’s line snagged when he had a big salmon.”
. . . Ted’s death meant that the most important relationship in his life was gone. Worse still were the repercussions: disagreements of the sort that many grieving families have when the family linchpin dies. Nick was in his late thirties then and his mental health began to suffer.
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And so, last week, news of Nicholas Hughes’ death. Which brings me back around to “Nick and the Candlestick” & wanting to honor his life & memory as he himself lived it in the company & witness of his family, friends, colleagues, students, & loves.
Plath’s poem is part of that — written October 29, 1962, on the same day she completed composition of “Lady Lazarus.” Now I can quote some of it: Nick Hughes, aged 10 months, as seen by his mother in love, a light of possibility even in her own darkness:
O love, how did you get here?
Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean
In you, ruby.
You wake to is not yours.
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs –
The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,
Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,
You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.
As I’ve learned more of him over the past week, how much more he was a light in fact to his father, sister, stepmother, friends, loves, colleagues, & students. Just read Ted Hughes’ letters about visiting (& going fishing with) his son in Kenya, where Nick Hughes was studying Nile perch for his undergrad dissertation, or Alaska, where the younger Hughes took his Ph.D. as well as becoming an important researcher on salmon, grayling, & trout. Or the memories of him at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Or Dermot Coles’ article about him in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
He made lasting friendships in Fairbanks with those who shared his inventive interests in such varied pursuits as stream ecology, pottery, woodworking, boating, bicycling, gardening and cooking the perfect pecan pie. Nick guided many people in the winter to spots along the Tanana to savor the art of burbot fishing through the ice.
He spent countless summer hours in his research of grayling and salmon in the Chena River, exhibiting all the patience and wonder that defines a great fisherman. One of his innovations was rigging underwater cameras to get a three-dimensional view of the fish feeding in the passing current.
I read that, & I feel the cool breeze blow into me: the joy of life as profound as anything put to words in a poem — like his father’s poems, full of animal life.
In yesterday’s Times (of London), Joe Saxton recounts:
There was only one poem of Ted’s I ever saw Nick express interest in – not Birthday Letters, not Tales from Ovid, not Pike, nor any of the other dead rat plop poems. It was about woodpeckers.
When Woodpecker’s jack-hammer head
Starts up its dreadful din
Knocking the dead bough double dead
How do his eyes stay in?
Ted had hit on a biological conundrum and as a biologist Nick wanted to know the answer (which is, apparently, that it keeps its eyes shut and wraps its tongue around the base of its brain – a woodpecker’s beak is going at 1,300mph on impact).
I love that. I love the poem — the play of words & rhythm — & the biological conundrum both, & I love the scientific curiosity that led Nick to investigate the answer.
Though I’m not convinced that it was the only poem of Ted that Nick was interested in: surely the father’s love of animals & nature as expressed in his poems was an influence to the son, as well as something both shared side-by-side in the fishing trips they took together —
— & now I stop to think: why does this matter to me, who knew neither of them?
Because… because I’m a poet? (though I haven’t written much poetry lately….) Yeah, sure, partly. But mostly I guess that in the desperation of my despairing youth, I got caught up in a very screwed up & false romanticization of Plath’s death. The thing I wrote in 1995 about her, “Sylvia Plath’s Resurrections”, was me working my way out of that sick misunderstanding — partly for her sake, yeah, but also very much for my own: because John Donne had it right when he said “Death be not proud.” I think Plath loved life. I know damn well that so did her son. I know damn well from my own nasty times in the pit that it’s not a hatred of life or a love of death that leads to the act of suicide: it’s inexpressible pain that the suffering mind cannot foresee an end to.
I feel no particular virtue that I’ve each time somehow muddled my way to the other side of the pit, or the seemingly endless bleak grey landscapes I’ve staggered across (so far, at least) — it’s not easy to explain how I’ve come through, any more than it’s easy to explain why others have not. I sure as hell would never judge someone like Nick Hughes that he didn’t. I’m just sad he didn’t. But I’m glad also that he lived what he lived. I didn’t know him, but I hope that those who did know him have good & lasting memories of him, & that you are all comforted in the face of his premature death.
Joe Saxton’s Times article informed me that today at 1.30 PM Alaska time, there would be a tribute to Nick Hughes at UAF, & that “Nick’s colleagues in Alaska and New Zealand have requested that people take a moment and think of Nick and his life.”
That’s what this writing is for.
* * *
Addendum: Another article in The Mail which further fills out the picture on Nick Hughes’ life, including memories from friends & colleagues in Fairbanks.
I forgot to mention earlier how much it’s bugged me the numerous news stories that described him as “unmarried with no children” — most of them failing to mention his relationship with Christine Hunter, a UAF biologist with whom he lived, & who was the one to discover his body. I’m so sorry for your loss, Christine. News also that UAF plans to establish a scholarship in his name.
And indications that the cult of Plath (as much as Plath is important to me, do not count me as a member) was more a harm to his life than his mother’s death itself. Such an intrusive, destructive cult. Get a life, folks.